OCTOBER 31, 2007
Bill Crowe once said the greatest joy a human being can know is the ecstasy of completing a job well done. I would add, of living a life well-lived. And Bill did just that; as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a sailor, and a statesman.
Today we gather here on this yard, under this dome, and in our own hearts say farewell to a shipmate, to honor his noble service to our nation, to remember the life he led, the smiles he shared, and the indelible mark he left upon everything and everyone he touched. We do so with great sadness and yet also with great gratitude, thankful to the core that we even knew him, for the time he gave us, the wisdom he shared, the many warm memories he left us, and the lessons he taught us.
For Bill Crowe’s life was a life of purpose and consequence. It was a life of learning and thinking, of study and teaching. It was a life of love and laughter. It was a life of great courage. And he was fearless. He was never afraid to engage new ideas in his relentless pursuit of doing what was right, of being who he was and stating his beliefs. He was also never afraid to admit or to discover that he was wrong, never afraid to laugh at himself when he did. He knew he’d never find all the answers. That was fine with him. He didn’t need to. It was the questions that drove him, that kept him engaged, that pushed the rest of us to dig deep when we wanted to dig in. He was fond of saying the mind is like a parachute. It only works when it’s open. And his was wide open. Always.
He was an Okie. I think that’s been established. And he was dam proud of it. You didn’t have to talk to him very long before you knew that. Oklahoma sports, Oklahoma culture, Oklahoma food. And, of course, people drew him in, excited him, made him homesick.
I actually remember not too long ago walking into a restaurant in Washington with my wife, Deborah, for lunch. Just inside the door was Bill at a table with about ten ladies all wearing big red hats and even bigger smiles. I think it’s called the Red Hat Society. Bill’s hat was the biggest. And he was grinning like a possum who’d just eaten a sweet potato. I’m not sure what made him prouder; that he was surrounded by so many lovely women, which included his wife, Shirley, of course, or that he was surrounded by so many lovely women who happened to say they were Sooner fans.
I made the mistake once of telling him I was from California. You can imagine where that one went with jokes about my IQ.
You just couldn’t get the best of him. He was always at least two steps ahead of you. You could see it in his eyes; that certain twinkle that told you he was figuring things out in his head even while you were finishing what you were saying.
For a man who because of bad knees had trouble getting to his feet, he sure never had any trouble thinking on them once he was up.
He was a great American. And I don’t mean that in the overly simplistic or even solely military manner. Oh, he certainly had the medals and the credentials to justify his patriotism. Commander of a submarine, riverine operations during the Vietnam War, leadership of all our forces in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific. And he’d seen the ugly side of war and helped preserve a fragile peace. He was every bit the warrior statesman this country needed in the wake of World War II.
Bill Crowe served in, no, he really helped define a time of incredible change. A true scholar, he applied his intellect to advise three presidents and served as a bridge between the Cold War and this new era. He was a Sailor of vision who focused our Armed Forces to think and operate jointly. And he was a remarkable diplomat who understood the power of relationships.
You couldn’t have a better friend. His personal bond, the relationship he established with Soviet Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev was legendary. But it wasn’t just the relationship; it was the friendship that had the power to shake at the foundations of the global order of that time.
But it is not what you saw when you looked at him in his uniform, or looked at his service record, or even what you read about in the headlines that made him a patriot. It was his loyalty that set him apart. He understood the power of giving oneself over to a greater cause. Shipmate, ship, self was not just a slogan he learned here in Bancroft Hall. It was the code by which he lived. He also understood better than most that true loyalty was neither blind nor deaf nor mute. It always looked for, listened to, and spoke the truth. It was rooted in moral courage. Loyalty, in Bill’s view, was not simply saluting and following orders, though he certainly understood that was a big part of it. To him it meant a willingness to stand up, speak your mind, even if doing so cost you your job. That’s what made him such a terrific naval officer and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I’d be less than honest if I said it isn’t also one of the reasons I continue to admire him so much.
On the day those airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing our lives forever, Bill Crowe was here at the Academy doing what he loved; teaching our future leaders. Some of his young students were flooded with emotion; shocked, outraged, even stating they wanted revenge. He cautioned them. He asked them to consider what America needed them to do right now. He let them ponder that question for a moment which was, itself, the answer. Think, he said. You’re military people. You’re supposed to sit down and think calmly. You must divorce yourself from the emotions and use your head.
It was much the same advice he gave me as I prepared for my current assignment. He also warned me, and this will come as a shock to no one, to not take myself too seriously.
I remember going to sit with him a few weeks ago at the hospital and there on the nightstand stood, probably 18 inches high, a stack of books that he had every intention of pouring through. He wanted to read, to team. And if he read it, it must be worth knowing.
He passed on his love of learning to his family and was never more proud than when he talked about their studies, their pursuits and their accomplishments, especially those of his granddaughters; Amanda, who as a Plebe here is following in her grandfather’s footsteps, and Caitlyn who’s paving her own way at Georgetown.
Bill was, is, and forever will be remembered as a faithful public servant, a towering example of integrity, and an inspiration to generations of Americans, as I am sure he has been an inspiration to each of you here today.
Let me take just a minute to acknowledge someone who has been an inspiration to Bill, his life partner, his soul mate, the love and light of his life, his wife, Shirley.
Over the years, I have witnessed Bill and Shirley’s dedication to each other, dedication to the families of those who wear the uniform. Through their mere presence together or even in the simple acts of walking their dogs, they shared an unspoken language between a husband and a wife that endured and matured and was an eloquent and loving exchange and an eternal example for us all. Shirley, I know that you challenged Bill’s thinking as much as he challenged ours. And we are grateful for that. Bill was who he was and did what he did in no small measure because of how you loved and supported him for over 53 years. You made his service possible. You are an inspiration to all of us. And Deborah and I thank you, as do the families of all our service men and women, those who are serving now and those who have served before. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Yes, Bill gave his time, he shared his wisdom, and left us with many fond memories. The time has now gone, we can’t get that back, as much as we’d like to. But the wisdom and the memories remain, and those are things we will all hold onto. So today we bid farewell to a man who lived with purpose, who served with passion and who, above all, never forgot that, as he himself put it, a good sense of humor oils the gears of everyday life. We will sure miss him and that sense of humor. May God bless his soul, his family, his Navy, and the nation he loved so much and so nobly served.